LOUISVILLE — The preliminaries included a trip to the Bahamas, an on-campus NBA Combine, historic smackdowns of fellow bluebloods Kansas and UCLA, showdown victories with North Carolina and Louisville, the emotional shock of Alex Poythress's torn anterior cruciate ligament, surprising gut-checks in the Southeastern Conference and three freakish snowfalls in two weeks (two in Lexington bookending one in, of all places, Starkville, Miss.).
"It's kind of all surreal," Willie Cauley-Stein said of Kentucky's first 34 games.
Now, it becomes as real as college basketball gets. Like all teams, Kentucky wants to survive and advance in the NCAA Tournament. Unlike every other team, Kentucky knows that anything short of a national championship breathes life into the famous words of 19th-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier: "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been.'"
Kentucky must beat upstart Hampton on Thursday night to begin its championship-or-bust version of March Madness.
"You can feel the tension in the air," Devin Booker said Wednesday in a UK locker room thick with media types and media hype.
That has been Coach John Calipari's message: Although it's the first unbeaten team from a major conference since 1976, Kentucky must be prepared to start anew.
"Our accomplishments that we've accomplished this year, that's good and dandy for us," Booker said. "But at this time of late season, it's time to lock in and try to finish this thing out."
Kentucky seemed composed and confident.
"We just have the best team," reserve forward Derek Willis said. "We have the best players. Player for player, we're better than anyone. Our system just fits us. We have the best efficiencies. Honestly, that's just how it is."
Three months ago, UCLA Coach Steve Alford all but predicted that the college basketball world would see a supremely confident Kentucky team entering the NCAA Tournament. Rather than be pressured by its undefeated record, he said, UK would be emboldened.
When reminded Wednesday of what he said after Kentucky humiliated UCLA 83-44 on Dec. 20, Alford said, "I thought, if they could get by the non-conference season and just get to the midpoint of the conference season, then I think the pressure would turn a little bit. Yeah, there's still going to be talk of it, but then after the players realize that, 'Hey, we're 18, 20 games into this thing. ... Take this thing one game at a time, keep getting better and let's just see what happens. I think you see that in how they play. They're a very confident group. ... To me, they're playing with a lot more confidence now than what they were in December. That's pretty scary, if you ask me."
Of course, it's the NCAA Tournament, which seems to exist to provide David-and-Goliath story lines as much as crown champions. An opening game is particularly volatile, said two-time championship coach Rick Pitino of Louisville.
"The only time I was nervous was the first game," he said at a Tuesday news conference. "You don't know how your team is going to come out."
Cauley-Stein acknowledged Kentucky's anxiety.
"You just have jitters," he said. "It's the tournament. That's what you play the whole season for. It's not the first game, really just like the first half of the first game. You have a whole bunch of nervous feelings. Once you run it out, it's good."
SMU Coach Larry Brown, Calipari's first boss, acknowledged Kentucky's abundant talent.
"I honestly think they'd make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, if they were in the NBA," he said, perhaps in jest. "For somebody to beat Kentucky, Kentucky has to play as poorly as they possibly can play."
Brown, the only coach to guide teams to NCAA and NBA championships, likened the NCAA Tournament to winner-take-all game sevens.
The words of wisdom going into the NCAA Tournament are eternal. "I don't want them to worry about losing," Brown said. "Short time to prepare, so you really have to focus on your team. That's never changed."
That has been Calipari's mantra all season: Kentucky concentrating on Kentucky remains the objective.
"It could be anybody's night," Willis said of the tournament's precarious nature. "It just so happens every night's been ours. I think it'll stay that way."